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Monday, September 5, 2011

The Debt



In 1965, three Mossad secret agents participated in a secret mission to kidnap an at-large Nazi war criminal. Portrayed in their youth by Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, and Jessica Chastain, this mission would be the defining point in the lives of the three agents, the ramifications of which would still be felt over 30 years later, when they are in their December of their years and played by Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wikinson, and Helen Mirren. The emotional core of The Debt lies with Rachel Singer, the character shared by Chastain and Mirren. Their target, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), "The Surgeon of Birkenau", hides in plain sight as a gynecologist in East Berlin. Posing as a newlywed with Worthington, Chastain investigates Vogel as his patient. James Bond would raise an eyebrow at Chastain's spy game of literally spreading her legs so her target could get to know her privately. Csokas calls the shots of the operation, and yet when Chastain's assassination attempt on Vogel fails, the three bungle their kidnap attempt, exposing the details of their relationships and inner selves to the savvy and sinister Vogel, who is always listening in on them while tied up in their apartment. When Vogel escapes and nearly murders Chastain, the three make a pivotal choice to lie to their superiors in Israel and claim they killed Vogel. This lie stands for over thirty years, until Vogel resurfaces in the Ukraine, threatening to expose them all. The Debt is a tense, riveting Cold War thriller with some terrific performances, specifically from Chastain and Mirren as Rachel Singer. The realities of being a secret agent are presented as grim and bleak, hardly exotic or glamorous. Violence is matter of fact; despite several scenes of Csokas and Worthington training in hand to hand combat, it's Rachel Singer who endures all of the violence. Both Chastain and Mirren engage in brutal, bloody fights with Dieter Vogel. The climactic knife fight between Mirren and the ancient Vogel is top of the line if you want to see senior citizens stab each other to the death. "The Debt" seems to be a bit of a misnomer; a title such as "Three Jews and a Nazi in an Apartment" may be more accurate, though perhaps inappropriate.